The dedication is to St Nicholas of Bari.
This counts as a national church of France.
San Nicola de AgoneEdit
The church has its first documentary record in the list of small parish churches dependent on the basilica of San Lorenzo in Damaso which was drawn up in 1186.
Its origins are unknown, but probably date from the late 10th or early 11th centuries. The name Agone is a reminder that the original building was erected in, or converted from, the vaults supporting the spectator stands of the Stadium of Domitian. The nearby church of in Agone Sant'Agnese in Agone had the same sort of origin.
There was another church or chapel in the vaults in the Middle Ages called Santa Caterina in Agone, which was not the same as this church.
The Duchy of Lorraine used to be an independent component of the Holy Roman Empire, but since many of the inhabitants spoke French the expatriate Lorrainers in Rome initially attached themselves to the new French national church of San Luigi at the end of the 16th century.
In 1587 the Confraternité de Saint-Nicolas et de Sainte-Catherine de la Nation de Lorraine et de Barrois (Confraternity of SS Nicholas and Catherine of the nation of Lorraine and Bar) was founded to establish a chapel in that church and to erect their own church in due course.
In 1622 the confraternity received a papal grant of the old church of San Nicola in Agone, and began rebuilding in the following year. The architect was François du Jardin, who finished it in 1636. The time that it took was probably owing to the need to raise funds in order to spend them.
The ceiling vault, apse conch and interior of the dome were painted by Corrado Giaquinto in 1733.
French expansionism in the mid 18th century resulted in the piecemeal annexation of Lorraine, completed in 1766, and hence the church became a regional French one.
However part of the territory was German as Alsace-Lorraine between 1871 and 1918, and this led to some conflict over the functioning of the church in this period.
It fell into serious disrepair in the late 20th century, but was thoroughly restored in 2006. It is now used by the Community of St John, a new French religious institute founded in 1975. It continues to be counted as a national church of France, together with San Luigi, Santissima Trinità dei Monti and Sant'Ivo dei Bretoni, and the French government owns the property.
Layout and fabricEdit
This is allegedly the smallest church in Rome with its own dome, although this is invisible from the
street. It has a narrow single unaisled nave with two side chapels near the entrance, a transept with a dome over the crossing and a very short rectangular sanctuary beyond the crossing.
A wing of the adjacent building sits on top of the nave, and another tall building is behind the church. This leaves the hemispherical lead dome as if inserted into an open box. It has a circular brick lantern with four windows and a lead cupola.
The façade is simple, in travertine limestone. It has two storeys, and the first storey has four Doric pilasters supporting an entablature the frieze of which has a dedicatory inscription In honorem S. Nicolai natio Lotharingorum ("In honour of St Nicholas, the nation of Lorraine"). The entrance doorway has an oversized raised triangular pediment, and is flanked by a pair of round-headed niches.
The second storey has four Ionic pilasters with swagged capitals, identical niches and a large central window with a Baroque frame and a raised segmental pediment. The crowning triangular pediment contains a little square window which lights the void between the ceiling and the roof.
The 18th century decoration in polychrome marble, stucco (much of it gilded) and fresco work is lusciously ornate.
The side chapels are arched niches, flanked by two Ionic pilasters in shallow relief which support an entablature which runs around the interior. This entablature is unusual in not having a frieze, but has dentillations below the cornice. A further pair of pilasters is folded into the corners flanking the entrance, and the engaged piers of the triumphal arch are in the same style. All these have gilded capitals and are revetted in red and white marble.
The side chapels are flanked by four doorways. Each of these has a segmental pediment with its cornice pushed up in an angle as a gable, below which is a winged putto's head and festoons of flowers. Above the pediment is a white stucco relief sculpture by Giovanni Battista Grossi 1749 featuring a scene from the life of St Nicholas. Depicted are his birth, lactation, election as bishop and charitable activity.
These stucco reliefs are arguably among the few examples of the rococo style in Rome.
Two large lunette windows at the top of the nave side walls (the left hand one is actually false) squeeze the ceiling fresco into an attractive fiddleback shape. It is by Giaquinto 1737, and shows the saint causing a miraculous spring of water to flow from a rock.
The gallery has a balustrade by Giovanni Francesco Fiori, 1761.
The side chapels are two arched niches facing each other, containing identical aedicules with a pair of Corinthian columns supporting a triangular pediment on posts. The columns must have been painted to resemble red and white marbelling, because the pairs of columns have identical patterns.
The right hand chapel is dedicated to St Peter Fourier, and the altarpiece shows him having a vision of the Madonna and Child. It is ascribed to Francesco Antonozzi.
The left hand chapel is dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria. The altarpiece seems to show her with St Nicholas, as the two patrons of the confraternity that built the church. The older guidebooks name the artist as Nicola Lorenese or "Nicholas from Lorraine".
The dome was frescoed by Giaquinto and depicts Heaven. The pendentives show the Cardinal Virtues.
The ends of the transept have two pictures originally by Giaquinto which feature episodes in the legend of St Nicholas. The left hand one has him blessing the soldiers of the imperial army, and the right hand one has him calming a storm while on a sea-voyage. Apparently the latter is a copy of a lost original.
There is a striking trompe-l'oeil effect over the altar, as the flat wall is painted so as to give the impression of an aedicule with a coved pediment. The altarpiece shows St Nicholas, and is also attributed to Nicola Lorenese.
The sanctuary vault has a little elliptical fresco by Giaquinto, showing allegories of the three Theological Virtues.
Access and liturgyEdit
The church is only open for liturgical events, but the door is often to be found open with a locked railing gate blocking access. So, at least you can glimpse the interior from the doorway.
For information on liturgical events, try mailing: